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06.06.2020 Europe

Rwandan Genocide: The 25-year search for Félicien Kabuga

LISTEN JUN 6, 2020

Félicien Kabuga, the alleged financial mastermind of the Rwandan genocide of Tutsis in 1994, was arrested mid-May in a suburb outside Paris. Police forces throughout the world had been trying to track him down since 1997. The French authorities have now decided to hand him over to a UN tribunal.RFI investigated the ins and outs of the search that ended one of the longest stints on the run in recent times.

6.20am on Saturday 16 May: A unit of the elite Republican Guard move into a residential area of Asnières, in the Hauts de Seine département close to Paris. They use a pneumatic jack to force open the door of the small third floor flat in a non-descript building. Most spent a sleepless night. What if Kabuga is not there? Clues gathered over months of sleuthing give them to believe he is, but there has so far been no hard evidence.

Once the door  was forced open they find Donatien Nshimyumuremyi, aka Nshima, they find Kabuga's eldest son. He gives his name and points to his father who is still in bed.

Now in his 80s, the man who managed to stay on the run for more than two decades keeps his wits about him. He answers the intervention team in Kiswahili  and pretends not to understand the interpreter who addresses him in Kinyarwanda.

In fact, he claims his name is Antoine Tounga and he is from the Democratic Republic of Congo. Bad luck this time: the team discovered only the previous evening that this was the latest alias he was using - the 29th in 26 years on-the-run.

Besides, the team have an untrumpable card. One of the gendarmes spots the scar on the right side of his neck, the telltale sign that they have the right man.

It is 8-9 cms long, according to Interpol's red notice, and is the result of a minor throat operation Kabuga underwent in 2007 in Germany. The old man stops pretending, and a DNA test confirms his identity two hours later.

So Operation 955 succeeded. It was named after the UN resolution that gave rise to the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda and led by the French Gendarmerie's Central Office for Combatting Crimes Against Humanity, Genocides and War Crimes (OCLCH) in close contact with the Paris judiciary authorities.

Kabuga had, until then, escaped arrest despite the $5 million bounty on his head for his capture by the US State Department back in 2002 and the efforts of five international prosecutors over 20 years. He was one of the remaining Rwandan genocide fugitives from justice still on the run.

How did we get here?
Back in July 2019, Serge Brammertz, the prosecutor at the International Residual Mechanism for Criminal Tribunals, which took over from the ICTR after its closure in December 2015, decided on a new strategy in the view of the failure to arrest any of the main presumed génocidaires still at large after years of work by the Mechanism. He changed both personnel and methods.

Brammertz called together a large scale meeting in The Hague, in the Netherlands. The objective was to work closely with the teams of specialists tracking down fugitives from justice in several European countries, especially Belgium, the United Kingdom and France, where most of Kabuga's 13 children live.

Though sightings of Kabuga were reported over the years in Gabon, Burundi and Kenya, Brammertz is convinced that he is now in hiding in Europe - he was last reportedly spotted in Germany 12 years before.

His family and other people were placed under surveillance.In February 2020 they received a tip-off about a French connection. Though that first lead proved to be disappointing, the French investigators beefed up their efforts - search warrants, telephone taps, geomonitoring of Kabuga's close acquaintances....

Then, a few weeks later, the UK police told their French colleagues that one of Kabuga's daughters, who lives in London, regularly travels from the UK to Belgium via France. Closer surveillance showed that the woman spent more time in France than in Belgium. He mobile calls were traced back to Asnières, a suburb of Paris, though the family have no known home there.

Just recently locked-down, and teleworking in a country that came to an abrupt halt on March 17th because of the Covid-19 pandemic, the investigator who oversaw the inquiry used this hiatus in normal life to dive headlong into analyzing the data coming from various sources: detailed phone tap reports of conversations, specifically telephone bills of people close to the fugitive.

This provided a comprehensive map of their movement and led to the following conclusion: over one year, almost all of the children of the alleged génocidaire actively maintained the same type of telephone relay network from Asnières, where Séraphine Uwimana was spotted. 

By the end of March, through a request from the tax office, the team of investigators found out that an apartment in Asnières had been rented for “several years” under the name of Habumukiza, the surname of Félicien Kabuga's son, on the 3rd floor of an apartment building on Rue du Révérand Père Christian Gilbert.

This was a major discovery, but still did not provide incontestable proof that Félicien Kabuga lived there.

Immediately after this discovery, the Kabuga family's bank statements, obtained by court request, began to make sense. A  bank transfer of $10,000 was made to the Beaujon hospital in Clichy, in the Hauts-de-Seine department, and not too far from Asnières.

The transfer was made in the summer of 2019 by Bernadette Uwamariya, one of his daughters and considered to be the head of the Kabuga clan in Paris. She is also the widow of Jean-Pierre Habyarimana, one of the sons of the former Rwandan president of the same name. The investigators decided to follow this thread.

Over the folllowing days, the tension ratcheted up. It was the beginning of May and the phone taps on Félicien Kabuga's children reveale"d a significant increase in comings-and-goings from the apartment.

Some investigators believe this activity to be “abnormal”. What was going on? Could Félicien Kabuga be dead? Were they preparing his escape? These thoughts are running through the minds of the investigating team.

In a country under lockdown, with deserted streets and closed shops, it would be impossible to organise hiding Kabuga without the risk being caught. The investigators keep their distance. Some of them called for an immediate raid on the apartment, fearing the fugitive might slip through their fingers.

Maybe they remembered that three years previous, during the burial of Félicien Kabuga's wife on a February day in Waterloo, Belgian police (who were convinced Kabuga would be present) had tried to launch an operation for his capture. It failed.

25 years on the run
There was, however, one reassuring thing: During this period, a phone tap  that had listened in on one of his daughters, mentioned that Félicien Kabuga was “alive”.

This was a piece of good luck as the family carefully avoid using their father's name in telephone conversations.

“To cover up 25 years on the run, one must be well organized. They have had plenty of time to break themselves-in”, according to a source close to the investigation. “In two months, this was the first time that we could say with certitude that he was still alive.”

On May 11th, another discovery put the investigation on high alert. Donatien - the eldest son and Belgian resident, being monitored by the local police - escaped their surveillance.  He was now undoubtedly in France - in Asnières. 

“For what reason other than a girlfriend or a sick parent, would a man stay confined in a place hundreds of kilometres from his home in the middle of a health crisis?” asked one of the sources close to the investigation  

The whole story gathered pace again on May 15th. On that day the investigators learnt that the man who underwent colon surgery at the Beaujon hospital in the summer of 2019 was in his 80s.

His name was Antoine Tounga, according to the photocopy of a Congolese passport provided by the hospital. This was not a name known to the investigators. They immediately started testing samples of DNA taken from the Beaujon hospital to compare with another sample dating from 2007, given to them by the German police that they had taken before losing track of him.

The results match; Félicien Kaubuga and Antoine Tounga are the same person.

A new battle begins
However, the phone taps revealed another round of intense and worrying activity was taking place. The decision was made to bring forward the date of the sting operation that would, they hope, lead to the arrest of Félicien Kabuga.

It was to take place the following morning. It would involve raiding not just one apartment, but four, simultaneously – the one in Asnières, but also three other apartments known to the family in the Paris region, including the on Rue Baudricourt in the city belonging to Félicien Kabuga. “We wanted to be ready for any type of outcome, we hadn't any proof of where he would be. We couldn't let this fail.”

And thus ends the 25 years on the run of Félicien Kabuga, in France at dawn, betrayed by telephone surveillance of those who worked for years to protect him: his children.

On that day, for the family, a new battle began – the legal battle.

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